Latvia's Famous People

Music With a Moving Message

Pēteris Vasks (1946)

Since the 1990’s, Latvian Pēteris Vasks has been recognized as one of the world’s leading contemporary composers. His deeply moral and emotional work has been featured at many international festivals where he has served as Composer in Residence. He has been nominated for a Grammy Award and won the 2004 Cannes Classical Award in the Orchestral 20 category. His opuses have routinely had international premiers and have been performed by the top orchestras of the world.

Synthesis of Sound and Meaning

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)

German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas or “music dramas”, as they were later called. Unlike most other great opera composers, Wagner wrote both the scenario and libretto for his works. Wagner arrived in Riga in 1837 and worked in the city theatre. A stormy sea passage on his route from Riga to London inspired Wagner to write Der liegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman).

The World's Most Sought – After Conductor

Mariss Jansons (1943)

The son of respected Latvian conductor Arvid Jansons, Mariss has become a sought after maestro around the world. He has served as musical director of orchestras in Oslo and Pittsburgh, and served as principle guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He is the chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 2006, he received a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.

Vibrant Soul Strings and Personality

Gidon Kremer (1947)

Latvian violinist and conductor, globally renowned for exceptional interpretative powers. He has appeared on virtually every major concert stage with the most celebrated orchestras of Europe and America. Gidon Kremer has made more than 100 albums, many of which brought him prestigious international awards and prizes. In February 2002 he and the Kremerata Baltica were awarded with the Grammy in the category “Best Small Ensemble Performance”. Kremer has a remarkable collection of antique violins.

Advocate For the Elegance of Thought

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997)

Born in Riga, Sir Berlin was a philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. His legacy consisted of brilliant essays and recorded lectures. Berlin was devoted to a lifelong examination of his most distinctive doctrine: pluralism. He was awarded the Order of Merit, Britain’s highest honor for intellectual achievement. He was a renowned Oxford scholar and a president of the British Academy.

The Colourful Father of Expressive Abstract Art

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Born in Eastern Latvia, artist Mark Rothko is considered one of the preeminent artists of his generation and the pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. He is the associated with the New York School, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s. Rothko’s art represents rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale, yet is penetrated by mythology. His paintings are displayed at the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Gallery in London and many other museums.

The Voice of An Angel in a Latvian Soul

Inese Galante (1959)

A world famous Latvian soprano, Galante was born in Riga to a musical family. Galante made her western debut at the Mannheim Opera in 1992. In 1994 she made her recording debut, after 15 years on the operatic stage. In 1996 Galante moved to the Opera am Rhein in Düsseldorf and also made her British debut.

She made her US debut in 1999 at the Newport Music Festival and the Hollywood Bowl. Since then, she has become an international performer of outstanding repute with a vast opera and chamber music repertoire. In 2000 the BBC recognized her CD “Arietta” Best Album in the classical music nomination.

A Dazzling Dancer On the World Stage

Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov (1948)

A native of Riga, Baryshnikov began studying ballet at the age of nine. He is also an outstanding choreographer and actor. Alongside Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev he is often named as one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century. Baryshnikov has danced more than 100 different works in his ballet career, many created just for him, and has been a leading guest artist on the world’s greatest ballet stages. An energetic promoter of modern dance, Baryshnikov has led many artistic projects and premiered dozens of new works, including his own. Baryshnikov’s charismatic screen presence has led to starring roles in five films, including his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Turning Point.”

He Truly Is a Rocket Scientist

Friedrich Zander (1887 – 1933)

Riga-born Friedrich Zander was a pioneer of rocketry and spaceflight. He designed the first liquid-fuelled rocket to be launched in the Soviet Union and made many important theoretical contributions to the road to space. Zander envisioned the winged rocket, solar sails, and space planes, and was the first to suggest using the earth’s atmosphere for braking a spacecraft. A planet has been named after him.

Putting a Camera in Every Spy's Pocket

Walter Zapp (1905 – 2003)

Walter Zapp invented the world’s first high resolution mini camera. The VEF Minox (17 x 27 x 80mm, 125 g) was first produced in 1937 in the Riga VEF factory. It made fine resolution photocopies of detailed documents without losing detail when enlarged. In 2005, to celebrate Walter Zapp’s 100th birthday, MIN OX presented a Special Edition of this legendary spy camera. Miniature cameras in the 8x11 film format are still today being made by hand in Wetzlar, Germany.

Additional information about Minox Legend by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.

From Science Fiction to Fact – the Inventor of 3D Holography

Juris Upatnieks (1936)

Latvian scientist Upatnieks helped to lay the foundations for a new method of three-dimensional photography. Together with Emmett Leith, they were the first to use laser technology to record objects with three-dimensional optical properties. The discovery of holography opened a new world of possibilities in scientific investigation. It has also led to many practical applications, among them high tech weapons optics and aviation.

A Distinguished Surgeon and Scientific Innovator

Dr. habil. med. Viktors Kalnbērzs (1928)

A scientist, surgeon and distinguished public opinion leader, Dr. Kalnbērzs was born to a Latvian family in Moscow. His lifelong work is orthopedics, traumatology and plastic surgery. He is a respected academic, has practiced and supervised surgery in England, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, the Czech Republic and many other countries. He was the first to perform full gender reassignment surgery in the former Soviet Union, and developed the technique that is still in use today.

The Inventor of Nitrate Fertilisers

Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 – 1932)

The outstanding Riga-born chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, professor at Riga Polytechnic and Leipzig University, was a pioneer in the field of electrochemistry. This led to the discovery of the law of dilution which was subsequently named after him. His writing and organizational skills earned him the reputation of being one of the founders of classical physical chemistry. Ostwald was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1909.

Discoverer of Oil and Its Origins

Pauls Valdens (1863 – 1957)

Latvian chemist Pauls Valdens (Paul Walden) was the first to prove that oil exhibits an optical activity characteristic only for products of biological origin. The ‘Walden Inversion’ of molecule configuration and two new scientific fields: dynamic stereochemistry and the electrochemistry of nonaqueous solutions, are his major achievements. Although chosen for a Nobel Prize, he never received it because of the outbreak of the First World War.

The Architect Who Bends Light Into Inspiration

Gunnar Birkerts (1925)

Born in Latvia, educated in Germany and now living in the United States, Birkerts is one of America’s most innovative and distinctive architects. Among his most celebrated works are the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, the IBM Corporate Computer Centre in New York, the Corning Museum of Glass, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis and the University of Michigan Law Library. His projects have won 58 major awards around the world. His gift to his homeland is the stunning riverfront National Library building under construction in Riga.

The Architect That Put Art Into Engineering

Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 – 1921)

An outstanding architect and civil engineer, Eisenstein graduated from the Institute of Civic Engineering in St. Petersburg in 1893. He designed some of the most famous and most often photographed Art Nouveau buildings in Riga. His projects are renowned for elegance and decorativeness, unusual window arcs and colourful glazed inlays of brick or ceramic plates.

Landscape Artistry and Grandparks

Georg Friedrich Ferdinand Kuphaldt (1853 – 1938)

Landscape architect Kuphaldt was only 27 when he became the director of Riga gardens and parks. His first achievement was the reconstruction of Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill) in the heart of Riga, which has been preserved until today. The Riga Canal, the Esplanāde, Arkādijas park and Mežaparks (Forest park) were conceived and landscaped in his ambitious, vigorously geometrical style. Kuphaldt’s parks and gardens are vibrant in their splendor and maturity in the Kurzeme gardens of the Cīrava and Kazdanga estates, and the Eleja manor park in Zemgale.

Bringing the City Alive With the Power of Nature

Andrejs Zeidaks (1874 – 1964)

The brilliance of contemporary Riga’s famous landscaped parks is the work of gardener and lansdscape artist Andrejs Zeidaks. Between 1915 and 1940 Zeidaks used Latvia’s distinctive flowers, wild bushes and flowering shrubs to bring stunning color, depth and warmth to Riga’s parks and gardens. He is praised for his creative synthesis of Riga’s urban geometry and Latvia’s northern summer lushness. He was the landscape designer of Riga’s magnificent Memorial Cemetery (Brāļu kapi), which is one of Latvia’s most revered sites. Zeidaks’ work has inspired generations and continues to delight local residents as well as visitors to Riga.

City Planner Supreme

Johann Daniel Felsko (1813 – 1902)

Viewed as Riga’s most important architect, Felsko was an urban planner who embraced the eclectic diversity of Riga. Felskodirected projects between 1844 and 1879 dominated the urban scene of Riga and continue to give the city its feel today. Felsko counseled and contributed artistically to almost every significant construction project in the center of Riga, from parks and canals to churches, schools, office buildings, banks, houses, and entire streets. Thanks to Felsko, Riga’s splendid layout of boulevards set an example for urban designers in other European cities.

The “Coral Castle” in Florida: a Monument to True Love

Eduards Liedskalniņš (1887 – 1951)

One heartbroken man from Latvia who could not forget his unhappy “sweet sixteen” love affair, built a truly mysterious castle in its honor. Florida’s famous Coral Castle was built by Eduards Liedskalniņš as a memorial to his lost love. In defiance of the laws of gravi-ty, he singlehandedly carved, sculpted and moved over 1100 tons of coral rock. The castle inspired Billy Idol’s rock hit “Sweet Sixteen” (1987), and has been included in the United States National Register of Historic Places.

Master of the Sounds of Music

Mārtiņš Saulespurēns (1943)

Latvian sound technician Mārtiņš Saulspurēns joined Skipper Wise to found BLUE microphones in 1995. These state-of-the-art professional on-stage microphones were originally made by hand for discriminating recording artists. Today, award-winning BLUE microphones set the standard for audio quality as well as style. BLUE (originally Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics) today is an award-winning, multi-faceted audio company and a symbol of sound excellence.

Chess Magician From Riga

Mikhail Tal (1936 – 1992)

Latvia’s most accomplished chess genius, Tal became a Grandmaster and the eighth World Chess Champion. His specialty was a daring combinational style. Both The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games (Burgess, Nunn & Emms 2004) and Modern Chess Brilliancies (Evans 1970) include more games by Tal than any other player. Tal was also a highly-regarded chess writer. The chess community still widely regards him as the greatest attacking player of all time.

Riga's Most Famous Medicine Man

Abraham Kunze (18th century)

Experimenting with traditional Latvian herbal medicincal recipes, Riga pharmacist Kunze created a liqueur that would make his city famous. Drawn from 16th century Riga apothecaries, Riga Black Balsam consisted of 25 ingredients: plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils and berries, prepared in oak barrels. Sold in distinctive dark brown ceramic bottles, it is still popular as a remedy for colds and digestive problems. The recipe is still a secret with its exclusive producer, the company “Latvijas Balzams”.

The Creator of Propaganda Poster Art

Gustavs Klucis (1895 – 1938)

Born in a Latvian family, Gustavs Klucis was a talented artist who pioneered the graphic techniques of modern poster art. Klucis taught, wrote about, and produced political art for the Soviet state. While living in Moscow, he explored and boldly expanded the concept of the political poster. Through his efforts it became a powerful propaganda tool that was copied around the world. Despite his contributions, he was executed by Stalin’s order due to his Latvian origin.

Putting Powerful Eyes in the Sky

Konstantīns Počs (1912 – 1994)

Latvian engineer Konstantīns Počs was one of the inventors of AWACS – the airborne warning and control system widely used around the world today. The familiar AWACS ‘saucer’ was designed for Boeing airframes and is vital for surveillance, command-andcontrol, and communications functions for tactical and defensive missions. The system is used by NATO, Japan and many other countries. During his 30 years of work for the US Air Force, Počs became a leading designer of meteorological rockets and his patents are the property of the US Air Force.

A Riveting Fashion Inventor

Jacob Davis (1831 – 1908)

Although American blue jeans were invented in the Wild West, it took a tailor from Riga to invent a way to keep them together. In 1854 Jacob Davis left Riga for Reno, Nevada, where he opened a tailor shop. When asked to strengthen a pair of canvas overalls, Davis used small copper rivets to fasten the harnesses. The sturdy work pants became the first riveted jeans. In 1873, Davis patented his invention together with a merchant, who supplied him with the canvas–type material: Levi Strauss.

Discoverer of Pygmies, Plants and Cannibals

Georg August Schweinfurth (1836 – 1925)

Born in Riga, Schweinfurth was educated as an ethnologist, paleontologist and botanist in Germany, Sent to head a research expedition in Central and East Africa in 1870, he discovered the River Welle (Uele) and explored the upper Nile basin. He also undertook the first serious study of cannibalistic practices and confirmed the existence of pygmy tribes. In addition to being a foremost Africa specialist, he also was a leading authority on the origin of cultivated plants.

The Man Who Knew the Orchid Best

Ernests Foldāts (1925 – 2003)

Born in Liepaja, Latvia, biology professor Foldāts has been recognized as the world’s foremost orchid specialist. Receiving his doctorate in 1964 for his research on Venezuelan orchids, he went on to discover and describe 70 previously unknown species of orchids. In 1998 Foldāts received the International Creole award. The Academy of Sciences of Venezuela honored Foldāts as its leading biologist.

Casting Iron in a Better Way

Jānis Robiņš (1925)

The world’s most widely used iron casting technology was invented by Latvian chemist Jānis Robiņš in the 1960’s. Robiņš breakthrough improved quality, reduced energy costs and sped up the casting process. This process has since been applied to casting aluminium and other non-ferrous metals as well. Germany’s Daimler-Benz first used this process for automotive parts in 1968. John Deere was the first to use it for mass production in North America.

No Shortcuts to the Top

Edmunds (Ed) Viesturs (1959)

Born to Latvian parents in the flatlands of the American Midwest, Viesturs is one of the world’s leading high altitude mountaineers. He has ascended Mount Everest six times and completed a 16-year quest to climb all 14 of the world’s highest mountains (above 8,000 metres) without the use of supplemental oxygen. His feats have been noted by Hollywood in the movies “Everest” (1998) and “Vertical Limit” (2000).

The Inspiration For Crocodile Dundee

Arvīds Blūmentāls (1925 – 2006)

After leaving Latvia in 1945, Blumentāls began a legendary life in Australia where he, among other things, hunted reptiles, studied the Aborigines, and dug for opals. His colorful personality and fame inspired the Crocodile Dundee films and even led to the erection of a crocodile monument in his Latvian hometown of Dundaga. As an opal miner, he built an extravagant residence in Coober Perdy, Australia, which remains a popular tourist attraction.

Bringing a Wonder to the World

Aleksandrs Laime (1911 – 1994)

Does the highest waterfall in the world exist if no one sees it? Latvian explorer Laime changed that when he discovered the spectacular Angel Falls (979 m) during an expedition in Venezuela between 1949-1994. Laime also named the river that features the nearly kilometre high waterfall; the Rio Gauja is named after Latvia’s longest river. He also named three other rivers - Rio Venta, Rio Daugava and Rio Ogre - to honour the beloved waterways of his Latvian homeland.

© The Latvian Institute

This fact sheet can be freely printed from homepage of the Latvian Institute, distributed and cited, on condition that the Latvian Institute is acknowledged as the source. The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad. It produces publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Latvia.